From OUSD Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell
Dear Oakland Unified Community,
I am both proud to say we are now in Black History Month, and disheartened to know that in our world, it is quite clear that the forces that try to diminish Black voices and heritage have been emboldened. The past year has been wrought with pain for all of us, but especially African Americans.
It is in remembering, acknowledging and lifting up our distinct and beautiful contributions that we begin to tap into our humanity and strength as Americans. So this month I celebrate our heritage, but also acknowledge all the recent history that has been made – much of it enormously challenging – which is so important for our healing.
The past 12 months have been arduous for African American people everywhere. We have been experiencing the worst effects of the pandemic, with some of the most tragic numbers of Covid case rates, hospitalizations and deaths. And yes, that’s the impact of systemic racism. As our first Black, Asian, and Female Vice President – and Oakland’s own – Kamala Harris said, “There is no vaccine for racism.” That leads me to my next point.
The past year also saw incredible history being made in the name of racial justice. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, just like the killing of Oscar Grant here in Oakland, speak volumes about the brutality perpetrated against Black men and women over centuries of systemic racism, which continues to this day.
As Rosa Parks said, “I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” Ms. Parks spoke for so many of us who are tired of giving up, who have had enough and are demanding real change. And this time around, the historic activism that spread across the country and around the world in the name of Black Lives Matter sparked change in private industry, government, and policing. Perhaps most importantly, it awakened millions of people to the plight of the African American community, to our history, and our heritage.
For the first time in a long time, it seemed the entire country was paying attention as we unearthed centuries of mistreatment and neglect, and that our value as a people who helped build this nation was finally being properly honored. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” The United States of America wouldn’t be what it is today without those of us whose ancestors came from Africa.
Here in OUSD, my staff and I are working with great intention to ensure we are an anti-racist school district. Of course, we can’t do that work alone. Internally, I have to give thanks to our Office of Equity, and its African American Female Excellence and African American Male Achievement programs, and all of our amazing, dedicated staff. I also want to thank all of our partner organizations, including Kingmakers of Oakland, the Black Organizing Project, the State of Black Education, and the Oakland NAACP for supporting our Black students and all people of color in Oakland.
Throughout our history, when African Americans have succeeded, there have been others intent on knocking us down. Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma is a tragically perfect example from 100 years ago this spring. It was where a white mob destroyed what was at the time, the wealthiest Black community in the country, killing dozens of people and burning 35 square blocks of the neighborhood to the ground. It was an outrageous moment in American history that many people knew little about specifically because of the whitewashing of our history, until the movement this past year brought so many tragic parts of our past to light. It was one more part of the history of Black success and economic empowerment sabotaged by racist forces in our country.
Earlier this month, we saw something that in some ways was quite similar to Tulsa. It was the storming of our nation’s capitol by a mostly white supremacist mob, causing damage and death, in an effort to overturn an election that hinged on the votes of African Americans. It was one more sign of the ugliness of this nation’s underlying problems that we still must overcome.
As Amanda Gorman, the remarkable young poet at the Inauguration, put it so beautifully, “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.” She continued by saying, “It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” They are breathtaking words that speak to the fact that what happened on January 6 at the capitol wasn’t anything new to the Black community. It was just more evidence of the centuries of oppression we have faced in our own country.
Actor Morgan Freeman said, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” I completely agree. But the reality is there are plenty of people in this nation who don’t care about our history, who would take this country back to a time before the Civil Rights Act, before the Voting Rights Act, even before the Emancipation Proclamation. This is what we as a people and as a nation are fighting to defeat: a re-energized white nationalist movement that would love nothing better than to deny us the right to vote, the right to equality, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That movement must be met with an overwhelming response, so that hate gains no more ground in our political system.
Fortunately, this powerful movement gained a lot of steam over the last year both locally and nationally. Here in OUSD, the African American Female Excellence and African American Male Achievement programs in our Office of Equity facilitated the power of our students’ voices in the battle for racial and economic justice and the NAACP fostered our students’ futures through scholarships, support for them to continue their education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and advocacy for all of Oakland to use the power of their vote. Additional advocacy continues here in February as the District celebrates Black History Month with numerous events.
Nationally, the African American vote was pivotal in the presidential election. In states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia, the Black vote guaranteed a change in leadership. That wouldn’t have happened without people such as Stacey Abrams who rallied voters to turn out in record numbers, both in November and in the runoff campaign in Georgia in which Raphael Warnock, Pastor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta became the first Black United States Senator from Georgia. Senator Warnock joins Vice President Kamala Harris as Black leaders who were educated at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, just like many of our students.
Under normal circumstances, this message would be all about honoring the accomplishments, heritage and history of African Americans. But this is no normal year. This year, it’s time for a call to action. We have so much to be proud of, so much to celebrate, so much to bring us joy. But when there is still so much injustice, so much of it caused by others intentionally, I can’t help but think it’s time to re-energize ourselves for the history that we all still need to make, as we collectively work towards a more perfect union. Never forget that in lifting up the most marginalized among us, we all rise.
Michelle Obama said, “There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.” One thing I can say without hesitation is that as we have seen from a daughter of Oakland, Kamala Harris, reaching the White House, I know that all of us from The Town can look forward to much success that will be created, change that will be sparked, growth of our nation that will be fostered by Oakland students and the generations that follow them. That is our Black History that I will always celebrate.
Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell